When we speak or write, or listen or read, we create sentences with words and phrases. Grammar is the system of rules that guide us as we make and comprehend the sentences of others. All languages have some kind of grammar.
When we use the word grammar in the sense discussed here, that “system of rules” does not necessarily include rules like “Never end a sentence with a preposition,” or “Don’t dangle your participle around here, bub.” That kind of rule may often be helpful, but it’s not what this book is generally about.
So what rules are we talking about here? To begin with an example, we might say this:
On Tuesday, Devlin caught Alicia in the wine cellar.
Or I could say this:
On Tuesday, Alicia caught Devlin in the wine cellar.
(On Tuesday, Alicia and Devlin had more fun than I’ve had all year.)
But the point is this: Those two sentences contain exactly the same words. The only difference is the placement of Devlin and
Alicia, and that difference alters the meaning of the sentence considerably.
Sometimes we can move words around without changing the meaning at all:
Alicia and Devlin are characters in Hitchcock’s film Notorious. Devlin and Alicia are characters in Hitchcock’s film Notorious.
If we put some words in a certain order, it makes one meaning, and we change the meaning when we rearrange certain words. Other changes don’t alter the meaning at all. Those are some of the things we mean by the rules of grammar: Certain word orders and changes are meaningful in certain ways and others aren’t.
Here’s another example. Suppose we alter the sentence this way: Tuesday on caught cellar Alicia Devlin wine the in.
(If you talk like that, you’re spending too much time in the wine cellar.)
In this example, we’ve used the same words but arranged them haphazardly, and with that order, the words make no meaning at all. That’s what happens when you break too many grammar rules.
There are still other kinds of rules:
He caught her in the wine cellar. She caught him in the wine cellar.
(Just where is this wine cellar and how do I get there?)
We know, as speakers of English, that he and him both refer to Devlin, and she and her refer to Alicia. So why do we have to use different words? Why not use he and she in both sentences, and forget about him and her?
We can’t, because the rules of English say so: We have to use one form—one inflection—of he and she if they appear before
caught, and another inflection (him and her) if they appear after
If you’ve spoken English all your life, you already know that rule, even if no one ever taught it to you. You learned it intuitively when you were very young—that is, you learned it simply by listen- ing to other English speakers—and now you seldom have to stop and think about when to use he and when to use him.
But a speaker who is just learning English may have to study and practice rules like that. At this point, we should stress that, for beginning students of English as a second language, there are definitely more helpful books than this one. For you, this book may not be the best starting place.
Here we will assume that our reader has an intuitive under- standing of many such rules of English. We’ll often refer to them, because they’re helpful in learning about other matters of English grammar.
BUT WHY? WHY?
Understanding the basics of English grammar is helpful when- ever we study language. When we’re learning to become better writers, for instance, we have to discuss language, and that re- quires some knowledge of the terms and concepts of sentence structure—that is, of grammar.
For example, we may discuss improving something we wrote by rewriting a passive sentence as an active sentence. But discuss- ing that improvement—and making it—means we need to recognize a passive verb and know how to change it into an active verb, and then make all the related changes in the sentence.
The terms and concepts you learn in English grammar apply to other languages, too. Many of the grammatical concepts of English apply to other European languages, and some apply to non- European languages as well. That means that English speakers can use grammatical terms and concepts they already know to help
them learn a new language. For example, it’s easier for English speakers to learn about direct and indirect objects in German if they already understand these concepts in English.
Any time we want to learn about language or discuss it, basic grammatical terms and concepts are likely to be useful. We encounter those terms and concepts in dictionaries and other reference works; we encounter them in books on linguistics and psychology.
So why study grammar? To become a better writer? To learn a new language? To study linguistics? To become an English teacher? To use a dictionary more effectively? If you want to do any of these things, you’ll find a basic knowledge of grammar helpful.
The simple declarative sentence is the usual basis of all grammatical study. Other kinds of sentences are important, but we begin with declaratives.
A declarative sentence doesn’t ask a question or give an or- der. It simply makes a statement, an assertion. All of the following sentences are examples of declarative sentences:
Mr. Morton lives in our neighborhood. Mr. Morton is a pest.
I like Mr. Morton.
High Street takes you out to the city park.
The old train station stands on Front Street, by the river.
In the chapters that follow, we’ll primarily focus on declarative sentences.
But what is a sentence? One common definition—one you may have heard before—goes like this:
A sentence is a unit of language that contains a subject and a
predicate and expresses a complete idea.
Audiences of professional linguists, when presented with this definition, hiss, boo, and throw vine-ripened tomatoes. (They’re an unruly lot.) They raise plenty of objections about it too, espe- cially concerning the vague notion of “a complete idea.” But we often encounter this definition in introductory grammar courses because it doesn’t require students to know many grammatical terms or concepts. For the time being, we’ll settle for this familiar definition. But hold your fire; we’ll return to the task of defining the sentence later, after we’ve learned a bit more. (And we will explain subjects and predicates in the first chapter.)
WHAT KIND OF GRAMMAR?
There are various approaches to grammar. For example, you may have heard of the approach called generative grammar (or sometimes transformational-generative grammar), associated with the linguist Noam Chomsky. That is an important and influ- ential approach to language, but not one that we’ll discuss in this course. You may encounter it, however, in books on linguistics, where you’ll also encounter many of the terms discussed here.
The approach in this book is sometimes called traditional grammar or classroom grammar because it is often used in English and modern language classrooms, where it has long been taught. (Grammar is always taught long and never short. Suck it up.)
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO OR WHAT YOU DO
Approaches to grammar can also be classified as prescriptive
Putting it simply, prescriptive grammar tells students how they should speak and write to communicate in the standard dialect of their language, the variety of English used by educated speakers.
Descriptive grammar describes the ways language is actu- ally used, even by speakers of non-standard dialects. Descriptive grammar seldom makes explicit judgments about what is right or wrong in a sentence.
Like many approaches to grammar, the approach in the following chapters is to some extent a combination of the prescriptive and descriptive. This book describes the grammar of Standard American English—the variety educated Americans usually speak and write in professional situations—and so this book implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) prescribes standard uses over others. But much of what we’ll learn here applies to any variety of English.
Every language has its own internal logic, however inconsistent it may sometimes be. Learn a few premises, usually simple ones, concerning things like word order, or number, case, and tense, and you’ll understand something of the logic of a language, even if you don’t yet know all the cases and tenses. You’ll see that many features of English grammar are clearly and simply logical. And some aren’t. (And some aren’t even trying.)
HOW MUCH GRAMMAR?
This is an introductory book: It gives you the most basic, the most frequently used terms and concepts of English grammar.
By comparison, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (by Quirk, Greenbaum, and others) is 1792 pages long. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (by Pullum, Huddleston, and others) is 1860 pages long.
This book is nowhere near as complete, or as long. (You’re welcome.)
But even a basic book like this one offers challenges. This book contains roughly 200 grammatical terms, some that you may have encountered before, and others that may be new to you. The workings of English (or any other language) is a vast topic. Even an introductory text, if it aims to give you a good start, will cover a good deal of territory. That’s why it’s important to know about— and use—the resources available in this book.
USING THIS BOOK
One way to get a good grasp of what you learn here is to do the exercises at the end of each chapter and check your work by looking up the answers in the back of this book. If you make mistakes, reexamine the exercises you missed until you understand your mistake. Don’t write the answers in your text—that way, you can return to the chapter and use the exercises again for review and practice.
When you don’t remember what a particular term means, you can always find out by using the index or by consulting the glossary in the back of the book, which will also refer you to the relevant chapter.
As we’ll remind you again and again, having a dictionary handy is important when you’re studying English grammar (or any language for that matter). Dictionaries can help you figure out if a particular word is an adverb or a preposition or a conjunction, or the right form of a verb or plural noun.
Good online dictionaries make looking up words fast and easy, and they have the kinds of grammatical information you’ll sometimes need. Here are some online dictionaries you could consult:
xii | Brehe’s Grammar Anatomy
(the online American Heritage Dictionary)
The online Oxford English Dictionary, the massive historical dictionary, is a wonderful resource, but it may overwhelm you with the sheer quantity and range of its information. We’d recommend that you do not refer to it as you begin to learn about grammar. (But it’s still fun to browse through.)
And now we’ll find out more about those declarative sentences; on to Chapter 1.